After a sketch-writing gig for MAD-TV, appearances on The Tonight Show, an HBO comedy special and a Lambda Literary Award for his memoir Openly Bob, the New York—based gay comedian turns in a comic novel, Selfish & Perverse (Reviews, June 4), set in L.A. and Alaska.
Why fiction now?
I had written two books of personal essays, so even I was sick of writing about myself. I love comic novels, everyone from Evelyn Waugh to Stephen McCauley, and so by the end of my second book, I thought fiction would fit. But until I went out to Alaska, I didn't know what I would write about.
You've traveled to Alaska to perform at a few Gay Pride festivals there. How much of the novel is based on those real-life experiences?
I do know a Yup'ik storyteller, I have eaten nagoonberries... I kept a very detailed notebook and I took hundreds of pictures, and when it came time to write the novel, I actually had tons of material to work with. I'd been to Alaska 12 times in six months. After I went out fishing with my friend and then he'd read the book, he told me “you totally 'got' Alaska.”
How did your memoir, Openly Bob, inform the novel?
It's based on me in some ways, but it's not really me. Unlike Nelson, the protagonist, I've always known what I wanted to do. I'm not one of those writer's-block writers.
Do novelists really get more respect in Hollywood than TV writers?
I really got sick of L.A. after a while. I felt like with the book industry, it was between you and an editor and you have to convince one person that you're funny and smart. Working as a television writer, you have to convince an entire room full of people that you're funny and smart. It gets old, but you get paid way more when writing for TV than writing a novel. The entire book is fiction, but when I worked at MAD-TV, I would purposely keep my office door open and listen to the conversations that would drift by. There was material there for sure.
The title of your book is unique: an extract from a quote by Beethoven referring to the conundrum of the true artist.
I found the quote interesting because it accurately describes an artist as both selfish and perverse. If you want to have some sort of life, you have to balance both out. In the book, Nelson wants to figure out that balance. I think I have a good balance of both. Perverse is one thing, but it's a paradox for artists to be labeled as selfish when that selfishness actually ends up being an act of generosity.